BOOK REVIEW: The Blade Between by Sam J. Miller

One of the great things about Speculative Fiction is that an author can personify and give literal breath to a concept. Metaphors walk in the pages alongside the characters an author summons. Miller’s new book turns Gentrification into actual characters. 

The depressed, Rust-Belt city of Hudson NY is the setting of the novel. Back in previous centuries, whaling—the hunting and apportioning of humpback whales—was its primary industry before turning into a manufacturing hub. The city is given new life as an influx of economic opportunists transform the town into an area filled with antique stores and artisanal coffee shops.  The internet billionaire Jark Trowse not only makes Hudson the base of his many financial operations, he is also running for Mayor. This transformation causes the displacement of many of the long-time residents of the city as Hudson attracts a younger, hipper demographic.

The edgy photographer Ronan Szepessy returns to his hometown in the middle of  arevitalizing campaign to take care of some business with his estranged, dementia-addled father. Ronan is a damaged individual—a meth addict who still is wounded by his Hudson upbringing which included the suicide of his mother and nasty homophobic bullies. (In many ways, he reminds me of Liz Hand’s character Cass Neary—another wounded bird addict compelled to create disturbing photographic tableaux). Like Neary, Ronan is self-destructive and seems to thrive on negative energy. In spite of his less than adoring attachment to his hometown, he immediately doesn’t like the way the city has become a sort of trendy outpost for Brooklyn, frequented by quirkily dressed hipsters. Miller has Ronan tell his own story in the first person and he’s an intriguing if not always likeable anti-hero. His return is the catalyst for the action.

The Blade Between also has a scattering of other points of view, mainly from Ronan’s ex-boyfriend, the police officer Dom and Dom’s social worker wife Attalah. Dom’s narrative has him exploring the sudden rash of often violent resistance against the town’s ‘invaders,’ while Attalah and Ronan secretly conspire to challenge the mayoral campaign.  Just in the ‘corner of the eye,’ there’s some lowkey supernatural occurrences that add to the mayhem.

The supernatural intrusion is the tangible manifestation of the rage and nihilism of the dispossessed.  Miller gives the reader the satisfying taste of revenge, and also the bitter aftertaste of extremism. This is not a simple morality tale; everyone from both sides of the divide is imperfect in one way or another. Miller actually makes Trowse (a sort of Bezos (Amazon) meets Dorsey (Twitter) figure) approachable and charming, even as he is visiting economic devastation on Hudson. And the supernatural actors are monstrously immune from empathy in their zeal.

Miller manages to artfully display the various issues of gentrification. Change is inexorable and cities change character with great frequency. The Washington, DC neighborhood where I live has been home to members of the Harlem Renaissance artists (Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes lived nearby); the site of race riots in the 60s; my block was full of literal crackhouses in the 80s and 90s; and now has become a corridor full of artisanal shops and hipsters. Long term residents have been displaced, and new neighborhood traditions have sprung up. The Blade Between captures the ambiguous complexities that surround these issues, and never becomes a simple issue-based novel.